By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Modern Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s “Spheres” is like a Faberge egg — so delicate, yet so demanding in all its nuances and swirls that every voice in any chamber choir that dares attempt it has to be not only absolutely perfect, but in perfect balance with every other voice. One slip, and the whole piece is ruined.
This is the selection that opens the Kansas City’s Te Deum Chamber Choir spring “Lenten Meditations” concert, 7:30 p.m. March 24 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 11th and Broadway. The concert will be repeated at 3 p.m. March 25 at the Southminster Presbyterian Church, 63rd and Roe, in Prairie Village, Kan. Both concerts are offered with no admission charge.
The 20-voice Te Deum Chamber Choir has been experiencing a surge in reputation and audiences since it was founded in 2008 to give local professional-level singers, all of them university trained and most working as professionals in music, a place to stretch their talents in sacred choral music.
In addition, founder and artistic director Matthew Shepard deliberately selects for the choir’s spring and fall concerts works that are both beautiful and challenging, both for the performer and the audience.
“I try to choose music and weave it together in a way that the concert has the greatest musical and spiritual impact,” Shepard said.
“Parts of our personal faith journey can be challenging, confusing and unfamiliar, but there are also moments of simplicity, intimacy and comfort,” he said. “I try to construct my programs in a similar way.”
Shepard said he chose the Gjeilo piece to open the concert for its Kyrie Eleison — “Lord, have mercy” — text.
“The concert begins with this haunting, ethereal piece for the same reasons many Christian worship services begin worship with this text to ask, ‘Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us,’” Shepard said.
But buckle up. After grabbing attention and setting the tone with “Spheres,” Shepard and the Te Deum Chamber Choir will offer its audiences a one-hour ride through works of 10 composers spanning from the 17th Century to today.
Following “Spheres” will be three Passion motets by the early German Baroque composer Heinrich Schutz, whose career pre-dates Johann Sebastian Bach.
That switch from contemporary to the 17th Century and back again throughout the concert reflects Shepard’s confidence in the voices working with him.
“The quick style change and leaps back and forth through the centuries is certainly the hardest part of our upcoming concert,” he said. “Our singers work very had to make the quick, nuanced changes so that each piece speaks to the listener in an authentic, compelling way.”
The contrasting works Gjeillo and Schutz form the “Our Sin” segment of a five-segment concert designed by Shepard to draw the audience into a deeper meaning of Lent.
“Our Sin” will be followed by “Our Feast,” our reflection on communion with early 20th Century composer Sir Edward Bairstow’s “I Sat Down Under His Shadow,” and modern composer Steven Stucky’s “O Sacrum Convivium” (O Sacred Banquet).
That will lead to “Our Mother” — a reflection on Mary featuring two 20th Century works with Francis Poulenc’s “Salve Regina,” and Henryk Gorecki’s “Totus Tuus,” which was written on the occasion of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s 1987 trip to Poland.
The “Our Cross” segment will focus on, “the most central event of Lent, the crucifixion of Jesus,” Shepard said.
It will begin with a contemporary setting of the 19th Century African-American spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” then back to the 17th Century with Antonio Lotti’s “Crucifixus” and finally the 20th Century Paul Christiansen arrangement of “What Wondrous Love Is This?”
Like Lent itself, the concert will end with “Our Promise.”
“The final section aims to answer the question posed by the previous piece,” Shepard said.
It will begin with the modern Parker-Robert Shaw arrangement of the famous, “Amazing Grace.” It will move to Max Reger’s “Unser Lieben Fauen Traum” and conclude with F. Melius Christiansen’s triumphant and familiar “Beautiful Savior.”
Shepard said that “Beautiful Savior” seemed like the perfect choice to end a spiritual Lenten experience.
“After the challenging themes of Lent, especially the suffering from the crucifixion, a simple, intimate, comforting reminder that Jesus is our ‘Beautiful Savior’ seemed appropriate,” he said.